Writer-director Felix Thompson’s “King Jack” is a sensitive and self-possessed debut that clocks in at 76 minutes and doesn’t waste a single one of them. A coming-of-age story that mines familiar territory with unusual verve, the film almost immediately throws its cards on the table. The first scene finds our scrappy, towheaded 15-year-old hero (“Boardwalk Empire” alum Charlie Plummer in the title role) sneaking onto somebody’s front lawn during the early dawn hours and spray-painting the word “CUNT” on their garage door in huge black letters. The light is soft, the camera is close, and the music is warm — there are really only so many places a strong, tender-hearted indie can go from there.
Shot through a limpid, mid-summer haze in the Hudson Valley, the film follows Jack as he bikes back to the broken home he shares with his single mother (Erin Davie) and his garage mechanic brother (Christian Madsen). They live in a recognizably lower middle-class house, the musty kind of place where everything is peeling off the walls and everyone is screaming on the inside.
Jack hides in his room and tries to will himself into becoming a man — he does push-ups (as amusingly futile as filling a go-kart with rocket fuel), smokes cigarettes, and texts the girl he likes a picture of his dick. He’s called “scab” by the kids at school, and a pissed-off posse of them (led by Danny Flaherty as Shane) abuses him with extreme prejudice. Watching them get revenge on the whole garage door business by blasting Jack in the face with spray-paint, it’s clear that the adolescent rage is marked by a fully matured sense of violence. Jack’s frame has yet to fill out, but the weight of masculinity is already sinking onto his small shoulders.
Jack may mope and complain when his aunt “goes crazy” and he’s forced to babysit his chubby younger cousin Ben (a wonderfully blank-faced Cory Nichols), but he seems happy to finally have someone he can lord over, someone even more defenseless than himself. When Ben is taken hostage after the beef between Jack and Shane’s escalates to the level of a paintball gang-war, the eponymous shrimp is forced to figure out what it really means to be strong.
Plummer is in every scene of the movie, and his magnetic performance resonates with a wounded, weaselly, wannabe tough guy vibe that makes him a natural lead — there’s enough going on behind his eyes that you can feel his character processing things in real-time, and so all of “King Jack” is imbued with the vital energy of a young kid realizing that he doesn’t have to be a product of his environment. Jack is just old enough to do something that ruins his life forever, just old enough where he can slip through the cracks without someone being there to catch him.
Almost nothing happens in this movie that you won’t see coming a mile away, but when you’re 15, you don’t really see anything coming until its right in front of you. Thompson’s tunnel-vision plotting cleverly expresses the myopia of its young protagonist by allowing his most formative hours to unfold with the organic quality of a lazy afternoon. Between Ben, Shane, Jack, his family, the girl he likes, and the girl who likes him, there are nearly a dozen parts that very neatly slide into place for the movie’s climactic party, but Thompson makes the most of the energy he mines from Plummer and Nichols’ performances, using the “whatever” energy of an unsupervised summer day to distract from his script’s suffocating airtightness.
The result is a movie that unfolds like a delicate short story, a wisp of a film in which everything is in exactly the right place and even the smallest supporting roles are played with naturalistic perfection. That lived-in quality is sometimes at odds with a tone that feels like it was lifted wholesale from any of the similar coming-of-age features that Sundance has turned into a cottage industry (is it a spoiler to reveal that this movie ends with some kids riding their bikes down a street to some vaguely uplifting music during the magic hour?). But childhood is all about commonalities — “Boyhood” resonated with so many people because of its broadness, because it provided viewers a new lens through which to see their own lives.
And “King Jack,” while unabashedly a coming-of-age story, is even better as a portrait of masculinity in crisis, of how its passed down from one generation to the next, and how that process might best be interrupted. Even at its most clichéd moments, Thompson’s debut never loses sight of its hero’s most crucial lesson, and the one truth he’ll hopefully keep fighting to protect: Violence isn’t an expression of strength, it’s an expression of weakness.
“King Jack” opens in theaters on Friday.